I stared at myself in the mirror, my face a picture of absolute horror.
"Remind me again why I agreed to this?" I groaned.
"Because when was the last time you got invited to a masquerade at a haunted mansion?" My best friend Katelyn rose from the velvet fainting couch she was sitting on, grinning.
I smoothed my hands down the satin bodice of the gown I was wearing. No, not a dress. It was well and truly a gown. It was powder blue with silver brocade hand-embroidered onto the fabric, a giant bustle on the back (which made my butt look abnormally large), and lace trim along the quite-low neckline. I looked like Marie Antoinette's weird cousin.
"Haunted?" I chuckled. "Doubtful we'd be so lucky. Do we really have to dress up, though?" I asked, scratching at my chest where the lace itched my skin.
Katelyn came up behind me, tossing her beautiful red hair over her shoulder. Her pale skin, vivid blue eyes, and delicate freckles made her a total knock-out. I, on the other hand, was about as average as a girl could get. My hair color was a mixture of several different hues, which I lovingly referred to as "dishwater blonde". My eyes were blue, but not very bright. I was pale, but in a rather unattractive way (think "Casper the Undatable Ghost").
Katelyn gathered my hair, twisting it with finesse. When she was done pinning it up, I couldn't believe how good I looked. With some makeup, I might pass as pretty.
"Of course we have to dress up! I know you don't like to be the center of attention. Imagine showing up at a costume masquerade in your jeans and t-shirt! Everyone would be staring. Not to mention, my mom has graciously lent us these beautiful ensembles before they hit the stages of Broadway!" she practically vibrated with excitement.
I sighed in defeat. As much as I wanted to climb in bed with my favorite vampire novel and watch the ball drop on my TV, I knew she was right. The Ravencrest Manor had sat empty for the last sixty years, and she knew how much I'd always wanted to go inside. The newest owners had just arrived a month ago, and they'd invited the entire town over for a welcome/New Year's Eve party.
"Fine." I grumbled. "But don't expect me to be very social. I intend to explore every nook and cranny of that place before we leave, and small talk is not my thing."
She grinned in triumph. "Yes! Okay, I'm going to go get my dress on. You can help yourself to my makeup if you want. My dad sent us some masks from Italy- he also sends his love, by the way." She disappeared out her bedroom door.
Katelyn's dad was one of my favorite people on the planet. He was the only person who entertained my love of the creepy and macabre. He was a film producer, and he was currently traipsing around Europe working on some summer blockbuster. Around Halloween he had sent me an amazing memento mori locket he'd found in a British antique store- complete with a lock of hair from the 1800s. I'd never wanted to wear jewelry so much!
Since we were going to be wearing masks, I went very light on most of my makeup. I may have gone too dark on the mascara- mostly as an accident, but I figured it would be fine.
By the time I had meagerly finished my makeup, Katelyn walked in, fully assembled from head to toe. Her emerald gown fit like a glove. It had a beautiful black lace overlay, with tiny delicate flowers woven in. She looked so incredible that she could have made Rhett Butler give a damn.
She held two beautiful masks in her hands. She handed me the one made of silver lace, while she adorned herself with the delicate gold venetian mask.
"You look great, Bren! We should probably get going if we're going to make it by eleven." She grabbed my hand and yanked me out the door. I barely had enough time to slip on my favorite black Chucks on before we were outside.
"Looks like dad sent us another gift!" Katelyn giggled. Waiting for us at the end of her long driveway was a horse-drawn carriage.
"Leave it to him to make this whole ordeal even more uncomfortable." I had to laugh. "Alright, let's go."
Twenty minutes later, we passed through the wrought iron gates to the Ravencrest Manor. It was stunning, a beautiful display of antebellum architecture. It reminded me of the Gracey Manor from that live-action Haunted Mansion movie, but far more lovely.
The home was lit completely on the inside- something none of us had ever seen in our lifetimes. Gas lanterns lit the path up to the front door, making it feel like it truly was the 1800s. Only the assortment of parked cars and occasional camera flash brought me back to reality.
Guests flooded up the front steps, all dressed in beautiful historic garb. Even our high school principal was among them, sporting a top hat and fake sideburns. I nearly snorted.
'This is so exciting!" Katelyn swatted my arm playfully with a lace fan she'd pulled out of her purse. "I wonder if Adam is going to be here tonight."
I rolled my eyes. "It's a masquerade, Kate. Are you even going to recognize him?"
She scoffed. "I'd know his eyes anywhere."
"Yes, because you've spent so much time staring at him." I laughed. She rolled her eyes, but a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
"Maybe you'll find yourself a handsome beau this fine evening." She said in a silly southern belle accent.
"I'd rather find a ghost." I said half-serious. "I don't plan on spending much time interacting with anyone. It's already 11:18, anyway. The party will probably be over in an hour."
Katelyn didn't reply- we had pulled up to the entrance, and our driver had descended from his seat and opened our door. She practically jumped out. I followed behind her, just as excited.
As we made our way up the stairs, my heart started pounding. I wasn't sure if it was the anticipation of finally seeing the inside of my favorite building in town, but I was anxious. My hands started to sweat, and my skin flushed. Katelyn pulled on her mask, and I followed suit.
"Oh. My. God!" I heard someone shout the moment we walked through the door. Katelyn and I were quickly surrounded by some of Katelyn's swim teammates. They were all dressed for the occasion, though their dresses were far less extravagant than ours. Like usual, they ignored me, focusing in on the beautiful ginger-haired girl they idolized.
"Katelyn, you look so beautiful!" one of them gushed.
"Your dress, it's absolutely amazing!" another cooed.
I took advantage of my invisibility and slipped away from Katelyn's adoring fans. The inside of the house was even more beautiful than I had hoped. The ceilings were raised, with light gold walls. There was crown molding everywhere, and beautiful gilded chandeliers hung in every room. The rooms were filled with traditional furniture, but it all looked brand new. After about twenty minutes of wandering, I had seen the entire main floor, but I wanted more.
Men in antebellum costumes buzzed around the house with silver platters and champagne flutes. One of them went up a large staircase in the entryway, and in my curiosity, I followed far behind him. No one stopped me as I went up, even though I didn't see any guests upstairs.
The second floor was quiet, almost silent. I'd lost the man I'd followed- he must have gone into one of the many rooms. I wandered down the hallway, my heart pounding harder than it had when I'd come into the mansion.
The hallway was dark, only lit by a few dim sconces on the walls. The aura around me was dark, chilling, perhaps a little spooky.
I was in heaven.
The door at the very end of the hall called to me. It didn't look that much different than any of the others, but a very soft light slipped from the small space between the door and the floor. I didn't know what exactly fueled me forward, but I was suddenly on a mission- I needed to know what was in that room.
The air grew cooler as I got closer. Was the hallway even darker here?
My hand extended, and I knocked gently on the door. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears, and I swallowed hard.
For a moment, nothing happened. Maybe I hadn't knocked hard enough? Then without warning, I heard footsteps echoing, growing closer with every step.
The door swung open, and I held in a gasp.
Standing in the doorway was a young man, probably a couple years older than me. He had slightly tanned skin and blonde curly hair. His blue eyes were beyond beautiful, with thick black lashes. His lips were pink and plump. I could just lean in and give him a k-
Wait, what? Get it together!
The young man just stood there, staring at me. He didn't say a word, just stood in apparent shock, our eye contact never breaking.
"Oh, uh, I'm so sorry for intruding." I mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. "I... got lost."
He blinked a few times and his mouth went slightly slack.
"Are you talking to me?" he asked. He was dressed for the party, with high-waisted tan trousers and a white shirt, a tad agape at the top.
I nodded, unsure why he was acting so odd. "Seems so."
He swallowed hard. "Um... of course you are. Would you like to come in?" he asked.
I glanced behind me. No one knew I was up here, not even Katelyn. A strange young man, who I did not know, invited me into his bedroom. My gut told me to say no, run back downstairs and join my friend in the silly social activities she was engaging in. But my heart was drawn to him.
I nodded again, and he stepped aside. I moved past him, and I was once again completely distracted by the beautiful architecture.
"This place... it's so beautiful." I said, totally mesmerized.
"Why did you come up here?" he asked, standing in front of me yet again. He didn't sound upset, more curious.
"Well... I really only came here tonight to see the house." I admitted. "I wanted to look around upstairs, and I saw the light under your door. I thought I'd come and see what was inside this room."
He smiled, and my heart started thumping wildly again.
"Curiosity killed the cat, you know." He said, his voice soft as velvet.
"But the cat also has nine lives... so why not use them?" I smiled back.
His blue eyes gazed intensely into mine. My hands started to sweat, and I was suddenly aware of how close he was standing to me.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Brenna." I took a slight step back, and he took a step closer to me. "Uh, what's yours?"
"William." He said, not taking his eyes off me.
I was starting to get a little nervous at the way he was looking at me. It was somewhere between amazement and desire.
"And you live here?" I asked. He nodded.
"Yes." His voice barely rose loud enough to hear.
I swallowed hard. The sexual energy that was radiating from him was intense. I had never been the target of anyone's affections, so I was not at all sure what to do. I just stood there, unable to form a coherent sentence.
"There's something so intriguing about you, Brenna." He said, tilting his head slightly. "I'm not sure what just yet, but I'd love to find out."
I would love that, too...
Downstairs, I heard the hundreds of people attending the party start to count down the new year.
"Five... four... three...!"
William was even closer to me now. I could hear his breathing, steady and slow.
"Two... one... happy new year!"
"Happy new year." He whispered, pulling me into a deep kiss.
I practically melted into him, wrapping my arms around his neck. His hands slid up the back of my dress. His lips were so soft, but he kissed with a passion that rattled me from the inside out. I didn't want this moment to end...
"Brenna?" I heard Katelyn's voice call out from the hallway.
William pulled away. I immediately felt so empty, like everything good that had ever happened to me suddenly disappeared.
My eyes opened, and I gasped.
The room was completely empty.